Do you dream of riding a gondola on Venice’s Grand Canal, visiting the Game of Thrones filming locations in Dubrovnik, or getting a little wild in Amsterdam?
If so, you aren’t alone. These places ignite our wanderlust. They have something else in common; they, and many others, are overtouristed.
So how do we reconcile our desire to experience the places we dream of with being a responsible tourist? There are no easy answers, but some thought and knowledge can go a long way in helping to mitigate the problems overtourism causes.
What Is Overtourism?
Overtourism occurs when a tourist destination sees a decline in the quality of life for both residents and visitors and damage to the natural environment due to more people visiting than the area can reasonably handle.
This article by Solimar International (a sustainable tourism marketing and tourism consulting firm) does a great job of explaining what overtourism is and how we can prevent it.
Where Is Overtourism a Problem?
From bucket-list-worthy cities to tourist attractions, from entire countries to continents, here are some of the most overtouristed places in the world:
Cities including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Florence, Paris, Prague, and Venice
Attractions and areas like Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, some U.S. National Parks, and Lake Tahoe
Even Mt. Everest has suffered because of its popularity. I was shocked when I found out that there are around 200 dead bodies on the mountain. A 2019 clean up removed twelve tons of garbage and discovered four more bodies.
Islands including Santorini and Maui, the country of Iceland, and the continent of Antarctica
Businesses, such as Lavraria Lello, a beautiful art nouveau bookstore in Porto, Portugal, can also be impacted by overtourism. This bookstore is rumored to have been J. K. Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts. The author denies it, but that doesn’t stop thousands of people from queuing at its door.
Lavraria Lello charges five euro to enter the store, which you can apply towards a purchase. Even with this fee, the store is packed with people trying to get the perfect photo. Good luck with that!
Learn more about overtourism in the places we love in these articles:
Overtourism in Europe’s historic cities sparks backlash on The Guardian.com
9 destinations struggling with overtourism on Trafalgar.com
Fodor’s No List 2023 on fodors.com
For something more positive, check out Fodor’s Go List 2023
What Problems Does Overtourism Cause?
Overtourism causes problems for locals, visitors, and the environment. Here is a list of some of the issues caused by overtourism.
Issues that affect locals:
*increased cost of housing, often due to the proliferation of Airbnbs
*noise and congestion
*businesses like supermarkets and pharmacies being replaced with those that cater to tourists
*increase commuting time as locals move further out and roads become more congested
*resentment towards tourists because of the above
This article by Honolulu Civil Beat discusses the water shortage on Maui and the anger locals have because they have to conserve water while resorts are running fountains, filling swimming pools, and keeping golf courses green.
Issues that affect visitors:
*loss of authenticity
Issues that affect locations:
*increased cost of maintenance and policing
*degradation of attractions
A special problem with cruise ship passengers
When tourists rent hotel rooms, eat in restaurants, book tours, pay entrance fees, and buy souvenirs, they help the local economy. However, not every tourist visit contributes to the economy in a significant way.
The biggest cause of this is cruise day trippers. Cruise ships can unleash thousands of people in a city. These people will not book a hotel room. They are less likely to hire local tour operators since it is easier to book a tour through the cruise line. They may grab lunch and some snacks or buy a few souvenirs. Overall, their visits provide little benefit to the local economy.
What Is Being Done about Overtourism?
Cities and attractions need tourists, but not too many. Overtouristed places are struggling to find the right balance. Here are a few actions various locations have taken to preserve the local way of life and protect resources.
Maya Bay, Thailand
After it gained worldwide attention from the 2000 movie The Beach, Maya Bay exploded in popularity, sometimes having 8,000 visitors in one day. The large number of people, along with an increase in the number of boats in the bay, took a toll on the coral reefs and wildlife.
The Thai government closed Maya Beach in 2018 to give the ecosystem time to recover. This took four years. Per this April 2023 article by The World Travel Guy, the beach is now open but will likely close for a couple of months each year to give it time to recover from the strains put on it by beachgoers.
Venice has banned large cruise ships from docking in the lagoon since 2021.
Because of erosion to the city’s foundation and pollution concerns, Venice faced the possibility of being put on UNESCO’s World Heritage danger list. You can read more about this in this article by Travel + Leisure.
You can learn more about places attempting to restrict cruise ships in this article from Euronews. This Business Insider article talks about several U.S. cities attempting to restrict cruise ship traffic and the opposition they face from the cruise industry, local businesses, and state and federal governments.
In 2019, Dubrovnik capped the number of cruise ships to two per day and limited the number of passengers to 5,000 per day. A look at the docking schedules on cruisetimetables.com shows that they are keeping close to this. On some days, there are more than two ships, with a combination of large and small ships. On some days the total number of passengers exceeds 5,000 by a few hundred.
Steve and I were there in April 2023. During that week, cruise ships were in port on our arrival and departure days and the first full day of our visit. On that full day, four ships were in port, carrying a total of 4,726 passengers. We went into Old Town that day, and it was busy, but not horribly so.
Barcelona has tried several ideas to control the crowding in their city, including a temporary ban on the building of new accommodations in 2015. Currently, they have banned the rental of private rooms for less than 31 days. Entire apartments can be rented short-term (less than 31 days) as long as the owner has paid a few hundred euro to procure the appropriate license.
The city has recently limited tour group sizes, banned the use of megaphones on tours, and designated some streets one-way for pedestrians.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Amsterdam attracts millions of tourists partly because of its liberal lifestyle. Unfortunately, far too many of them come with the intention of taking their partying to the extreme. It is so bad it has made parts of Amsterdam virtually unlivable for its residents.
The city is finally fighting back. One way is with a digital discouragement campaign with the uninspired name “Stay Away.” It targets 18-35-year-old British men. The ads show the risks of hardy partying. They will pop up when someone searches terms like “stag party amsterdam.”
The Amsterdam city council instituted restrictions in the Red Light District, including banning cannabis and mandating earlier closing times for bars and brothels. There is also talk of relocating sex workers from the Red Light District to an “erotic center.” This idea is not going over well with many of the sex workers or with residents who don’t want the erotic center in their neighborhood.
The South Asian country of Bhutan has dealt with tourism differently. Since the country opened to tourists in 1974, international visitors were required to spend at least $250 per day. This covered accommodations, meals, a mandatory tour guide, and a sustainable development fee of $65.
Post-pandemic, the government ditched the package plan and instituted a daily fee of $200. Unlike the previous $250 per day minimum, the $200 fee doesn’t cover any travel costs.
Our Experiences with Overtourism
Back in the spring of 2018, when Steve and I were newbie world travelers, I was excited to visit Barcelona. It was the first city where we spent an extended amount of time. The concept of overtourism wasn’t on our radar, but it didn’t take long for us to see how crowded the city was. Barcelona’s overcrowding is made worse because it is a compact city with a high population density.
We stayed in Barcelona for a month. During that time, we saw many marvelous sights, but when I think back to our time in Barcelona, crowds are a big part of my memories.
In hindsight, we stayed in Barcelona too long, adding to its overtourism problem. I would love to go back, but if I do, it will be a much shorter visit.
Be sure to check out our post, “6 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Barcelona.”
In 2018, Steve and I also visited Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and took a side trip to Split. We skipped Dubrovnik because it was further away and because of its reputation for being overtouristed.
Fast forward to 2023. When planning where to go after our visit to Athens in early April, we chose Dubrovnik as our first stop. Even though we knew it was overtouristed, we felt it was a worthwhile place to see. We limited our stay to one week. Visiting in April also meant it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it is in the summer months.
Steve and I loved Dubrovnik. We found it interesting, clean, and easy to get around. There were a lot of people, but no more than we have seen in many other places.
Steve and I spent four weeks in Istanbul in 2022. It was one of our least favorite cities, partly because of how crowded it was. Over 15 million people live there, and around 10 million people visit every year.
While walking through the city, Steve and I frequently said there were too many people. The irony that we were contributing to the overcrowding wasn’t lost on us.
You can read our take on Istanbul in “Visiting Istanbul: The Good, The Bad, And The Startling.”
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
I learned about Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia from a calendar. The spectacular scenery in the photo wowed me. In 2018, Steve and I were in Croatia and decided to take a one-day tour from Zagreb to the park.
The park lived up to my first impression. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Wooden boardwalks lead visitors over sixteen terraced lakes and past ninety waterfalls. However, the crowded boardwalks detracted from our enjoyment.
We visited in the summer when the park is busiest. Our guide told us the park capped the number of daily visitors at 14,000. I do believe they hit that point the day we were there.
The park is so enchanting that Steve and I revisited it in 2023. This time we stayed at a hotel in the park for three nights. Unfortunately, heavy rains closed many of the trails and limited our hiking time.
When I think of overtourism, Venice is one of the places that immediately springs to mind. Yet it is a place I long to visit. And in June 2023, I will get that chance.
Steve and I will spend most of June 2023 in Pula, Croatia. This city on the Adriatic Sea is kitty-corner from Venice, a three-and-a-half hour ferry ride away. So after our stay in Pula, we will spend three nights in Venice!
I’ve always known that if I went to Venice, it would be a short trip. First, because it is notoriously expensive, and second, because I don’t want to add to the overcrowding. I know that we will probably only scratch the surface, but just getting the chance to see such a place is a privilege.
What Can You Do About Overtourism?
If you are concerned about the negative impact your visit may have on the city, you might decide to skip it. But should you?
Not necessarily. Overtouristed places rely on tourist dollars to support jobs, fill tax coffers, and help with conservation efforts. During the pandemic, when tourism dried up, poaching in Africa soared since there weren’t any tourists or guides to hinder the poachers. Here are some tips to help you be a more thoughtful traveler:
*Think about why you want to visit that place (not just to get the perfect Instagram shot, I hope).
*Consider other places where you can have a similar experience. You can find many suggestions online like these from Hidden Lemur.
*Avoid high-season; you will likely pay less and deal with fewer crowds. Win/win
*Stay for more than one day. Conversely, if you are a long-term traveler, consider taking a shorter trip.
*Consider exploring beyond the main sights. For example, after visiting Barcelona for a few days, explore other Catalonian towns such as Sitges or Montserrat.
*Support local businesses when possible. Here are some ideas from mediafeed.org to get you started.
*Avoid large tours.
*Use cruisetimetables.com to see the number of cruise passengers expected to visit on your days. Plan your trip or your daily sightseeing around them.
*Be respectful of the culture and customs. Common courtesy should be your constant travel companion.
If you choose to cruise:
*Pick smaller ships when possible.
*Consider routes that don’t stop at overtouristed places.
*Arrange tours through locals, not the cruise companies.
As travelers, we believe the world is our oyster. Our ideal trips include beautiful views, exciting attractions, interesting new friends, and great meals. What we have failed to realize until recently is that every place we visit is somebody’s home. Our tour buses clog their streets, our free spending drives up prices, and our lodgings price residents out of their neighborhoods.
Hopefully, those of us fortunate enough to travel will keep the issues of overtourism and the ways to mitigate it in mind as we plan our future trips.
Steve and I would love to hear how overtourism has impacted or changed the way you travel. Just drop your message in the comment section below. Also, if you found this post helpful, please consider sharing it using the share buttons at the top of the post.
Featured image of crowds in Florence, Italy by Taylor Smith on Unsplash.com